Friday, August 08, 2014

My favorite songs of 2014 so far

This year, I've been on the lookout for songs. Gravitating toward that hard diamond of perfection that only a concise, confident single (or album track that plays like one) can provide. I grew up on American Top 40, and even later, when I ventured down the extreme-metal path, brief video clips were guiding the way. Sipping and savoring is great, but sometimes you just want to gulp your music in a concentrated shot and feel it go straight to your head.

I don't know if 2014 has been a particularly good song year, or if that's just where I'm at. I find myself thinking in mixtape terms, listening—to new, recorded music, anyway—from a bite-size, instant-gratification perspective. (Then again, there are albums like La Dispute's Rooms of the House, which strikes me as a post-hardcore insta-classic, grabbing me as complete, immersive experiences.) Here are ten of my recent jams, all released since January.

1. Alvvays - "Archie, Marry Me"
This one is more teleportation device than mere song. It takes me somewhere else, so readily and completely that I feel like it ought to come equipped with some sort of "Do not operate motor vehicles…" warning. We speak of bittersweetness, and it's a cliché, until it's expressed as perfectly as it is here, as balmy melancholy, a sing-songy portrait of a life perched between adolescence and adulthood—or at least that's how I hear it. The deadpan lyrics (I really like the opening: "You've expressed explicitly your contempt for matrimony / You've student loans to pay / And will not risk the alimony") whisk me away to a sort of smart/lovelorn indie-film wonderland, like the best of Noah Baumbach, Whit Stillman and Wes Anderson. Yearning crushes set against the nerdy backdrop of academia, e.g. Overall, "Archie" is the kind of thing a "twee" skeptic—which I can sometimes be—might hold at arm's length initially; but then you move in a little closer, and you realize resistance is futile. P.S. I'm learning to love the whole album, i.e., the self-titled Alvvays debut, but the special exquisiteness of this track is really hard to ignore.

2. Future Islands - "Spirit"
Yes, "Seasons" (you know, the Letterman one) is a megajam, and the perfect wave for this fascinating Baltimore band to ride into the popular consciousness. But the song I play the most off the shrewdly titled Singles is "Spirit." It's a more dancey, insistent track than "Seasons," and, maybe better than any other Future Islands song, it sums up the band's weird alchemy—the transformation of apparent ’80s kitsch and stagy theatricality into transcendent emotional catharsis. If you've seen Future Islands live, you know that Sam Herring means every word, e.g., "For dreams come to those who let them in their guarded room." And the song rises and swells to meet the sentiment.

3. Sia - "Hostage"
Sia's 1000 Forms of Fear is so filled with concentrated pop bouillon, I have to take it in small doses. As anyone who's heard "Chandelier" can attest, the choruses on this thing are monstrous and unrelenting—elated, yes, but often quite sad. "Hostage" is the record's saving grace, its moment of pure giddy fun. Strokes guitarist Nick Valensi helped out on this one (I believe he also turned up on Sia's last LP, the very good We Are Born), and the track captures a bit of the lift of that band's fizziest material. "Hostage" embodies a real dance-in-front-of-the-mirror-singing-into-a-hairbrush vibe. The verse gets you dancing, and then, just before the :30 mark, the chorus comes gushing in, with Sia unleashing that glitzy belt, and as in the vertiginous "Chandelier" refrain, singer and song ascend to a peak of almost unbearable ecstasy.

 4. Mastodon - "The Motherload"
With help from producer Nick Raskulinecz, Mastodon has been pushing hard in a pop direction lately. The two resulting albums, The Hunter and the new Once More ’Round the Sun, work best in atomized form: Swallowed whole, they can be a bit cloying; you often feel the strain of an elementally "epic" band shoehorning itself into a radio-friendly format. But a few times on each record, Nick and the boys get it (it being the Perfect Mastodon Single) so, so right. Case in point, "The Motherload." This song proves, to me at least, that drummer Brann Dailor is the best singer this band's got. He sells this one with so much soul. And it doesn't hurt that the composition itself perfectly balances Mastodon's trademark burly drive, as well as the rock-and-roll swagger that's become a key part of their vocabulary, with a hooky pop imperative. I also love "High Road," Once's lead single, but "The Motherload" is the one that absolutely will not dislodge itself from my brain.

5. White Lung - "Snake Jaw"
Within seconds of throwing on Deep Fantasy, I was on board with White Lung. It's a fierce, relentless album that weights its punk and pop imperatives equally. But this song in particular is just above and beyond. I'm a sucker for bridges and post-choruses, i.e., when songs suddenly veer into a new zone, a place of deeper urgency, instead of just reprising what they've already shown you. This happens constantly in "Snake Jaw," a very short song. When I first heard the post-chorus section at :49, with guitarist Kenneth William busting into hyper pop shred mode, and singer Mish Way responding with soaring melodic wails, I completely lost it. That kind of overdrive and abandon (see also the Sia above) is what I crave in my singles. And the crazy thing is that there's a whole other, equally anthemic, bridge type section after the second chorus (1:36). "Snake Jaw" presents way more musical information than a two-minute song has any business presenting, but somehow, the maximalism feels absolutely logical and coherent.

6. Lana Del Rey - "Brooklyn Baby"
Lana Del Rey's lesser material can sound rickety, corny and/or tedious, but when she nails it ("Video Games," duh), the vibe is thick, immersive and absolutely irresistible. This song is pure camp luxury. She's juxtaposing her trademark sad-ghosts-of-Hollywood feel with hipster-satirizing lyrics. "They judge me like a picture book / By the colors like they forgot to read." Is she talking about herself here, about all the flak she got early on for coming off as artificial and manufactured? Or is this another part of her character portrait of a stereotypical NYC wannabe? ("Well, my boyfriend's in a band / He plays guitar while I sing Lou Reed…" "My jazz collection's rad…," "I get high on hydroponic weed…") That's another thing LDR's best songs do: embody what they're sending up, send up what they're embodying. You can fixate on the meaning, or you can just coast along on the sensation; either way, "Brooklyn Baby" is a triumph.

7. Juan Wauters - "Sanity or Not"
The shortest song on this list, and maybe the most efficient. Juan Wauters does what all the best singer-songwriters do: crafts a persona and embodies it to a T. Check out his old band the Beets, see him live, listen to his (very, very good) debut solo record, N.A.P.: North American Poetry—however you experience his work, you're getting a pure dose. The intention, the "character," if you will, are clear within seconds. The aloof sage, the slacker genius. (That album cover!) The Uruguayan in New York—bewildered but never baffled, always cool, in the spiritual sense. "Sanity or Not" epitomizes what my friend and ex–Time Out NY colleague Jay Ruttenberg meant when he wrote of the Beets that they "straddle the border of folk and punk." Both defiant styles, but also concise and, despite their shared anti-virtuosic stance, deliberate. Wauters is the dude in the shades, strumming away, yes, but a song as perfect as "Sanity or Not" doesn't just happen. 124 seconds of bliss.

8. The War on Drugs - "Red Eyes"
Like Lana and Juan, Adam Granduciel of the War on Drugs has also crafted a character, both in terms of persona and in terms of song. He is the sort of everydude of dad rock, the culmination of the ’60s troubadour figure as filtered through the ’80s "mature period." It's no small feat that he has everyone who listens to him grasping for lofty comparisons. Is he Dylan? Petty? Springsteen? Knopfler? Simon? Henley, even? He is all that is "rootsy" in great modern American pop; the unabashedly glossy version of that idea. Folk transmuted into product, but the thing is, it sounds and feels real—to a child or disciple of the ’80s, maybe even more real than the "real" Americana that underlies it. In its entirety, I find the latest War on Drugs album, Lost in the Dream, a bit much: draggy and bloated. But this song is pure FM-radio righteousness. The "Whoo!" moment at 1:48, and what comes after, cements "Red Eyes" as an essential addition to the road-music canon; that elegiac guitar/keyboard melody that's straight of the Bruce playbook—man… During these moments in "Red Eyes," the entire War on Drugs project propels itself from the realm of pastiche into the realm of the classic. Like Lana, Granduciel seems to be merely mimicking the real deal until, suddenly, he's embodying it.

9. Cloud Nothings - "I'm Not Part of Me"
You don't want to throw around the word timeless, but what are you supposed to do with a song like this? Here and Nowhere Else, the latest Cloud Nothings record (I love pretty much the whole thing), and especially this song, are all about the expertly calibrated balance of salty and sweet, grittiness and hooks. The fuzz on the guitar and the gravel in Dylan Baldi's voice, combined with the precision cut of the song's melodic arc. Name your touchstone for this sort of thing: Hüsker Dü, Nirvana, or maybe even the Stones, Beatles or Who. It's the thing that pop-minded rock and roll does best, and when you hear a great example of it, like "I'm Not Part of Me," there's no gulf between the present and the past. The canon is sacred, but it is also accessible; a new song, if good enough, can take you where all those great old songs did. As the album title says, you hear a track this well-written and rawly, real-ly performed, and for that brief stretch, you're here, in that song's own present, and nowhere else.

10. Say Anything - "Judas Decapitation"
It could be said that at this point, Max Bemis, leader of Say Anything has a formula, that his manic mixture of self-deprecation and vitriol is sort of like a mask of himself that he dons whenever it's time to write another song. I talked about the idea of persona above, and I think that applies here: Isn't making a character (caricature?) of yourself part of the singer-songwriter's job? I think so, and it's part of why I compared Bemis to Woody Allen when I first wrote about him. He's taken the classic neurotic-Jew shtick and updated it for the internet age. Bemis hit the bullseye with his Say Anything debut, …Is a Real Boy (note the reference to being a "dot-dot-dot real man" at 1:40 in "Judas"), and in a certain sense, more of the same is superfluous. But then you hear a song like "Judas Decapitation," a tightly composed pop anthem disguised as unhinged brainspew, and you realize that Bemis has actually gotten better at what he does. Sloppy, sincere, satirical, completely over the top. He's talking about this snake-eating-its-tail phenomenon, the "confessional" singer-songwriter ("speaking brutally of myself to gain traction," etc.) and the supposedly adversarial audience/media, each needing one another, feeding one another, spinning around in a perverse loop-the-loop. The breathless, frantic quality of the music fits the message perfectly. We've heard this from Bemis before, but never this hyperdistilled, this frenzied and fun, peeved yet pop-savvy.


I also love these:

Max LeRoy feat. Kitty and Sad Andy - "Brush Me Off"
What a jam this is. I've listened on repeat so many times. Kitty is a master of the "making it look effortless" school.

Antemasque - "4AM"
The concise, hooky Omar-and-Cedric is back, and I am psyched. This whole album is outstanding. Can't wait for the official release.

P.S. Major oversight! Bob Mould's "I Don't Know You Anymore" is a glaringly obvious punk/pop/rock/etc. mini masterpiece.

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